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Is The GOP Establishment Blowing Its Anti-Trump Campaign?

In this week’s 2016 Slack chat, we wonder what’s going on with the Republican establishment. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

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micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s our first 2016 Slack Chat of 2016! And here’s the question I want to start the year with: WTF is the Republican establishment doing?

Politico reported today:

In Washington and elsewhere, meanwhile, Republicans are on the hunt for a political entity that can be used to stop Trump. In recent weeks, Alex Castellanos, a veteran TV ad man who was a top adviser to George W. Bush and [Mitt] Romney, has been meeting with top GOP operatives and donors to gauge interest in launching an anti-Trump vehicle that would pummel the Manhattan businessman on the television airwaves.

But if Republicans are scheming to stop Trump, I don’t see any tangible signs that they’ve made progress on that front — or even much evidence they’re doing anything. So … WTF are they doing?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): They’re rolling in the deep.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Aren’t they a little late for that? From what I’ve read everywhere else, Trump already won the 2015 election.

clare.malone: I think it comes down to no one wanting to address an irrational actor in the political scene. Everyone guesses that he’s probably going to go after them, and no one quite knows when voters will reach their limit with Trump.

So, basically, no one in the establishment has … sacked up? Is there a more decorous way to say that?

natesilver: Clare, that comment about Trump being an irrational actor reminds me of this excellent piece I read by Dan McLaughlin a few weeks ago. He argues that Trump isn’t necessarily irrational but definitely presents a very different set of tactics and strategies than what his opponents are used to. And that’s creating a lot of problems for them — almost making them disoriented.

clare.malone: That’s fair—not irrational, just working from a totally different playbook that politicos aren’t used to.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): It reminds me of the wildcat offense in the NFL. That is, it was something imported from another game (the college game), and it played tricks on the pros. But once they figured it out, it was done for.

The question of course is whether they figure it out in time.

natesilver: Yeah, gadget plays and gimmick offenses work brilliantly for a time … until opponents figure out how to adapt.

But one question here is: When does it become “too late” for the establishment to stop Trump?

micah: One of the main reasons I’ve been skeptical of Trump’s chances of winning the nomination is that the GOP establishment hates him, which is different from simply not liking him. So not only will they not support Trump, they’ll do everything in their power to prevent him from winning. Or, that’s at least what I thought. If they stay as feckless as they’ve been, I think the chances of Trump winning go up appreciably.

To answer your question, Nate, I could argue they should make a move before Iowa. What if Trump wins Iowa, New Hampshire AND South Carolina — that’s a real possibility.

clare.malone: In the words of Pete Hornberger, it’s never too late for now, Nate.

harry: Folks, if he wins those three, there’s a better chance than not that he will win the nomination, in my opinion.

natesilver: Interestingly enough, some of the reporting (see Byron York, for example) suggests that one reason the establishment has been sluggish to act is because they still think Trump might implode on his own.

But he probably won’t win all three. He might not win any of them. I don’t want to spoil our primary forecasts, which will be launching soon, but …

harry: Yeah, here’s the dirty little secret that seems not to be discussed much: He’s not winning in Iowa and — though he’s winning there — his poll numbers are no better in New Hampshire.

natesilver: Yeah. He’s already behind in Iowa. And while he’s winning in New Hampshire for now, it’s an extremely wide-open race.

clare.malone: So we think that there’s a chance the establishment is just waiting for a brighter light to be focused on Trump, and then the voters will see his flaws once and for all? Aren’t people a little more reactive than that, especially people in politics? It actually surprises me a lot that there hasn’t been someone backing Alex Castellanos’s plan.

micah: Me too!

clare.malone: Romney was mentioned in the Politico reporting as someone who’s been privately complaining about Trump, but not a peep from him publicly. I just think they’re all a little shocked at Jeb Bush’s treatment by Trump, and they’re gun shy.

natesilver: I think the problem is that the “the establishment” is an abstraction. What we call “the establishment” is really an array of people and organizations with some goals in common, but some differences, too, and also real disagreements over strategy.

harry: You mean they don’t all meet on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at Arby’s?

natesilver: Do they serve merlot at Arby’s?

micah: But that diversity — in goals and priorities — is even more reason to think someone would have made a move by now.

natesilver: Indeed. It’s true that candidates like Trump haven’t done very well in the past. But part of the reason they haven’t done well is because there have been some organized efforts to stop them. They haven’t necessarily imploded of their own volition. Well, maybe some have (say, Herman Cain), but others haven’t.

clare.malone: So we’re basically waiting to see when a vast, right-wing conspiracy will develop? Or should history not be our guide here vis-à-vis organized efforts? Maybe he just becomes a strong third-party candidate, despite his claims of not wanting to do that?

harry: But is it really about bringing Trump down? He’s already down in Iowa. His level of support in New Hampshire is low enough that’s it’s really about coalescing enough around another candidate in my mind.

natesilver: Maybe you can give Republican insiders some credit for looking at the state polls instead of the national polls and keeping some perspective rather than panicking. That’s probably a sounder take on the race than what you’re getting from the pundits. But still, it’s not like this is a new problem. From the get-go, they haven’t seemed to have any plan at all for how to deal with Trump.

harry: Truth. It seems quite possible that they haven’t done anything because they don’t know how to do anything, even if they want to do something. Time will tell if this actually hurts them.

natesilver: What if a big advertising campaign against him turns out to backfire, for instance? If you’d found that out last October, say, that would have been pretty useful information and you can move on to the next tactic. But if you find that out now, and Trump wins Iowa or New Hampshire before you can move on to Plan B? Bigger problem.

clare.malone: I feel like there is soooo much stuff to make a good negative ad on Trump, though: Allegations of spousal abuse, bankruptcies, etc. Television is a powerful medium — sure it could backfire, I guess, but the fact that no one has spun all those things together, just to try it out, remains surprising.

natesilver: But Trump is such a target-rich environment that it’s a bit like an airplane spewing out chaff. Becomes hard to know what you’re really aiming for.

micah: The paradox of choice.

natesilver: In the long run, nominations tend to reflect a negotiation between two goals:

  1. Picking a candidate who reflects your values and policy goals;
  2. Picking a candidate who can win.

It can be hard to hit candidates on electability — until they actually start losing. But you could certainly hit Trump on the fact that he’s not a very reliable conservative. Run a campaign around how he’s an opportunist and “just another politician” who will say anything to get elected. How he’s not a true conservative — in fact, not any kind of conservative at all.

harry: What is ideology? We often talk about it on a left to right spectrum, but it’s often just as much about insider vs. outsider. No one cares about Trump’s conservative record or lack thereof. What you want to hit him on is being politics as usual, if you want to defeat him.

His support right now is actually weakest among the most conservative voters.

clare.malone: Right, maybe that’s why the establishment has been holding back its attacks. The low-hanging fruit on Trump that makes him such a turnoff to moderates and Democrats, i.e., the affairs/celeb factor, doesn’t turn off conservative Trump supporters since he’s such a bearer of the non-PC flag. So you’ve got to find just the right calibration of “he’s not a coherent conservative” to start to get them to turn. His ideology is “against the prevailing culture!” He adheres to no “ism.”

micah: That all seems right to me, but I still haven’t heard a good explanation for why Republican office-holders and party officials haven’t gotten their act together. Maybe they’re just choking. Or maybe they’re thinking, “Let’s see how Iowa and New Hampshire play out.”

clare.malone: Too many candidate teams they’re divided between? The people/PACs/allies of Bush/Rubio/Kasich, etc. are not coming together behind the scenes.

micah: But waiting until after Iowa and New Hampshire seems like a big gamble to me.

natesilver: This nomination race looks very different if Rubio or Christie or someone is ahead of Trump in New Hampshire, in addition to Cruz being ahead of him in Iowa. All of a sudden, it starts to look like a pretty conventional contest, in fact.

And we’re not that far removed from that universe. Cruz is already winning, narrowly, in Iowa. And the combined percentage for Rubio + Christie + Bush + Kasich is a ways ahead of Trump in New Hampshire. But they’re dividing that moderate/establishment vote four or (if you count Fiorina) five ways right now.

micah: But then you’re basically counting on the Trump-skeptic view proving true. Instead, maybe Trump overperforms in Iowa and turns out a lot of Reagan Democrats. Then he gets a bounce in New Hampshire.

natesilver: Even just a straight-up reading of the polls — without discounting Trump’s numbers much — suggests a lot of vulnerability for him in the early states.

micah: I guess my argument is that even if that’s right, and Trump’s chances of winning the nomination are say 10-15 percent, the risk to the party of a Trump nomination is great enough that I would have expected the establishment to have done more. Akin to Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine.

harry: I think I’m in agreement with Micah Cohen (a fine suburban Philadelphia kid). I think it’ll probably work out for the party actors, but they’ve left too much in their pockets. They’re taking a big risk.

natesilver: Maybe they really are in disarray!

harry: Maybe you need to stop plugging your own articles!

natesilver: Just trying to meet our recirculation goals.

clare.malone: The Republican establishment is engaging in risky behavior by not taking action, but it could all work out for them. There’s a lesson for the kids.

harry: Look, having unprotected sex probably won’t result in pregnancy, but why take the risk?

micah: The establishment could also be saving its fire for the last week(s) before Iowa and New Hampshire. Maybe some super PAC will blanket the airwaves in the final days.

natesilver: For now, I’m more interested in whether there’s any apparent surge in support for Rubio or another establishment candidate.

harry: You mean Chris Christie?

natesilver: For a while, we were reading reporting about how Rubio seemed to have some endorsements in his back-pocket. But the biggest name he’s gotten recently is Trey Gowdy. Does he have a John McCain or a Nikki Haley sitting around waiting for him? Or a Romney? If so, everyone’s back from vacation, Rubio’s “momentum” (as measured by the tenor of his media coverage) has been pretty negative lately, and it might be time to announce one of those soon. [Editor’s note: On Tuesday afternoon, Rubio received the endorsement of Chris Chocola, a former congressman who used to run the Club for Growth, and has a following among fiscal conservatives.]

harry: We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

natesilver: The conclusion of pretty much every FiveThirtyEight Slack chat is: “Yeah, the pundits are probably full of shit, but there’s a chance we’re full of shit too, so let’s wait and see what happens.”

clare.malone: Self-aware hubris. That’s our brand.

Read more:

Why It May Be Better To Poll Worse Nationally

Thousands Of Ted Cruz Supporters Play A Game That Might Win Iowa

We’re piloting our election podcast. The proper show will launch in January, before the Iowa caucus, but you can find our pilots in the feed for What’s The Point.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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